June 9th, 2009
In case you were too busy watching the Sunday morning news shows, Roger Federer won the French Open yesterday, tying Pete Sampras’ record of fourteen career grand slams and solidifying his claim to being the greatest tennis player of all time. Federer’s victory over Sweden’s Robin Soderling was not an exciting affair – he won in straight sets, in a match that seemed decided from the opening game, when Federer broke Soderling’s serve and marched out to a 4-0 lead. But it was a sublime display of his artistry. Playing against a fierce hitter who had defeated his previous opponents (including perhaps the greatest clay-court player ever, Rafael Nadal) by bludgeoning the ball, Federer countered with a game of spin and misdirection. He sliced sharp-angled backhands crosscourt to draw Soderling forward. He floated devilishly disguised drop shots just over the net in the middle of rallies. He kicked his serves into seemingly every corner of the service box, including four consecutive aces in a masterful second-straight tiebreaker that effectively ended the contest.
Federer is too poster-boy perfect for some sports fans: too nice, too gracious, too Swiss. But in an age of Olympic doping scandals and A-Rod, his career stands as a beautiful illustration of the limits of brute force. Federer’s greatest legacy will not be the number of grand slams he ends up winning (though his astounding appearance in 20 straight slam semifinals will likely last for decades, a feat whose greatness was underscored by Nadal’s early-round loss on the surface where he was supposedly unbeatable). It will be his role in rescuing men’s tennis from the Nuclear Age it entered fifteen years ago, when the combination of improved training and advanced racket technology seemed to strip the game of all subtlety; when big serves and short rallies seemed to decide everything and fans who longed to see world-class players display touch and accuracy were left to watch ESPN classics of Borg vs. McEnroe.
Now more than ever, as he creeps toward 30 in a sport dominated by men in their young 20′s, Federer must rely on misdirection and guile to defeat players who can overpower him. This is how he won the one grand slam that had eluded him until Sunday. David Foster Wallace evoked this aspect of his game in his brilliant homage to the Swiss star, “Federer As Religious Experience,” which ended with a glance at the generation of Federer-inspired kids we’ll be watching a few years from now, after he’s retired:
You should have seen, on the grounds’ outside courts, the variegated ballet that was this year’s Junior Wimbledon. Drop volleys and mixed spins, off-speed serves, gambits planned three shots ahead — all as well as the standard-issue grunts and booming balls. Whether anything like a nascent Federer was here among these juniors can’t be known, of course. Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform — and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.
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